New drug on street, and three users die Lethal mixture causes violence, madness, symptoms of stroke

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A drug sold on East Baltimore streets that is blamed for three deaths and more than 50 overdoses has created a health and law enforcement emergency similar to one that began earlier this week in Philadelphia. The drug, offered as heroin, is sold in capsules for $10 or less a dose. But, unlike in Philadelphia, where the drug was sold under the nicknames "homicide" or "super Buick," doses contain no heroin or cocaine, authorities said.

In Philadelphia, authorities reported more than 100 overdoses last week, but no deaths.

It was still unclear last night whether the makers were trying to earn steep profits by selling a counterfeit heroin, or trying to create a new illegal drug with an extra kick.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he believes the Philadelphia and Baltimore cases are probably related. He speculated that sellers of the drug were moving south along the Interstate 95 corridor.

He said that he has been in touch with Philadelphia's Mayor Edward G. Rendell and that health officials in Washington had been warned the drug could be headed there.

"These cynical drug dealers have come up with a new product," Schmoke said yesterday, after touring some of the neighborhoods where the drug was sold. "They're out there trying to determine whether people are going to die from this, or get high."

The capsule -- two capsules were taken from a user who overdosed -- contains a combination of scopolamine, an anti-motion sickness drug; dextromethorphan, a common cough suppressant; and quinine, a mixing agent.

It is the scopolamine that physicians at John Hopkins Hospital blame for the dangerous side effects, including stroke-like symptoms. Although small amounts of scopolamine can help control seasickness, the capsules sold on Baltimore streets contain amounts hundreds and thousands of times greater, doctors said.

So many users reported to Baltimore area hospitals Friday night that city officials took the unusual action of issuing a "blue alert," which required emergency rooms to accept anyone with symptoms caused by the drug to receive treatment.

Most users were agitated, paranoid and sometimes violent. All had to be restrained -- one by as many as eight security guards, said Dr. Gabe Kelen, director of Hopkins' Department of Emergency Medicine.

He called in extra workers to deal with the overflow.

"They're literally crazy. They went berserk," he said. "At one point this place looked more like a police department than a hospital."

Two of the deaths occurred at Hopkins, which treated about two dozen people who overdosed and admitted five others, according to Debbie Bangledorf, a hospital spokeswoman.

Most users recovered in about three to four hours with little memory of what happened. But several others had to be admitted to intensive care with conditions mimicking heart attacks, Kelen said.

Police responded swiftly yesterday to halt sales and use of the drug. Extra officers were called in to help canvass drug-ridden neighborhoods to track down the source of the drug and to get the message out to addicts to steer clear of it.

A special drug investigation unit was talking to informants to learn more about the drug's sales and sellers, she said. Police were also interviewing users at area emergency rooms.

By late yesterday, police had questioned many users, but "no one would come forth and give information as to who's [at the center of distribution] -- not yet," said Lt. Laurie Zuromski of the Eastern District.

Police say the drug is apparently being distributed within several blocks of Hopkins Hospital.

At Johns Hopkins Bayview Medial Center, 11 people were treated for overdoses, three were admitted and one of them died, according to Bayview spokeswoman Sandy Reckert.

Sinai Hospital and Maryland General Hospital each reported one case in their emergency rooms, and Church Hospital reported six victims, two of whom were admitted.

Baltimore police spokeswoman Agent Ragina L. Cooper said users purchased the drug, which some said they were told was heroin, for $6 to $10 a hit.

According to Officer John A. Moore of the Eastern District, hot spots for distribution include the areas of North Luzerne Avenue where it meets North Collington and East Preston streets, and the intersection of Milton and Biddle streets.

Police Maj. Odis L. Sistrunk Jr. also identified open-air markets at these corners: Madison and Bradford streets, and Bond and Preston streets.

Knowing that the drug might be lethal makes it more attractive to users, who think it is potent enough to give them a powerful high without killing them.

"They think they can handle it," Moore said. "They're looking for the ultimate high."

Pub Date: 5/12/96

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